Marketplace - American Public Media

Economic indicators: weird weather edition

Mon, 2014-02-17 11:36

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's a look at what's coming up Tuesday:

  • The National Association of Home Builders releases its housing index for the month of February.
  • Has a blast of snow cooled down manufacturing in the Northeast? We'll find out with the release of the Empire Manufacturing Index.
  • You think we're having crazy weather? In 1979 snow fell in the Sahara Desert for the only time in recorded history.


How well did the stimulus work?

Mon, 2014-02-17 10:44

Five years ago, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – a $787 billion economic stimulus – into law.

"Now, I don’t want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems, nor does it constitute all of what we must do to turn our economy around," he said. "But today does mark the beginning of the end."

In 2009, the economy was in bad shape – "more or less in a shambles," says Alan Blinder, the Gordon S. Rentschler Memorial Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

Unemployment was over eight percent, and over the next few months, it got worse.

"The economy was in much worse shape at that point than we thought it was at that point," says Gabriel Chedorow-Reich, a research associate at Harvard University. In 2009, he was a White House economist.

According to Chedorow-Reich, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 had two goals: "To break the recession and get a recovery started."

The stimulus included aid to states, many of which were cash-strapped; money for major infrastructure projects; tax cuts; and investments in training and education. 

Since 2009, many economists have studied the effects of the stimulus, and many of them have concluded it had a positive effect on the economic recovery. But it is hard to say with any real specificity how much the stimulus helped. Numbers vary widely.

Today, on its five-year anniversary, politicians are arguing over its efficacy again. Blinder says that is because there is no counterfactual. We don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have the stimulus.

"In terms of politics, it’s an overwhelming hurdle that can’t be crossed," he says.

Critics continue to say the stimulus was too big or too small, and that the government should have allocated that $787 billion more carefully.

President Obama continues to call on Congress to spend more money on infrastructure. He would like lawmakers to create an "infrastructure bank" to fix broken roads and bridges, and to improve and expand IT infrastructure.

The president argues the economy is still weak. Even though it is in better shape than 2009, many Americans are still out of work.  But there are few signs congress would back another stimulus – at least not before the midterm elections.

Taxi cab theater drives creative funding

Mon, 2014-02-17 09:18

"Take Me Home" is a play set in a taxicab. 

But not really. 

Yes, the audience (up to a whopping three people) remains in the back of a cab for the entirety of the performance (aside from the time spent beforehand in the waiting area, which is an ATM vestibule on a busy street in Manhattan). 

But the stage is the entire city, and everyone is an actor, whether they realize it or not.

"It’s not really a play so much as it is an experience," says playwright Alexandra Collier, "a waking dream."

The performance begins as a foggy sort of narrative around the driver -- both a real cab driver and an actor -- as he takes you through the city. 

Music, audio recordings, video, and photos figure into a vague and at times confusing "story" inside the cab.  Outside, things mysteriously sort of fall in sync to the music and themes inside: Wait, was that a coincidence?  Did that just happen? What is happening?

From a technical standpoint, what is happening: A crew of actors a dozen strong is performing in a choreographed way, as the taxi makes its way through town.

But what is happening to the audience is an utter blurring of the lines between stage and reality, because you don’t know who is an actor -- and who is not.  You find yourself staring at random people on the street, wide-eyed, waiting for some acknowledgement or cue from them that yes, they are part of the story. Sometimes they are.

And sometimes they look back at you, perturbed by your stare.  In this way, they are part of the performance too, though they are not actors.

"It’s definitely unlike any cab ride I’ve ever taken," says Elena Cohen, who was the second third of our backseat audience.  "Something about that view out the window, it’s like being in a movie or something almost."

Quite what playwright Collier intended.

"I want people to fall through the looking glass," she says.  

But this is more than a vision. It’s a response to what avant-garde theater consumers have craved in recent years. Immersive and unique experiences like the recent hit "Sleep No More," which allows audience members to wander around and mingle with actors during the performance, have obtained increasing prominence since the concept was introduced from Britain several years ago.  Other plays have been held in hospitals or Turkish baths. "Take Me Home" might be the most intimate of them all.   There are four times more cast members than audience members.

Which brings up a question: How can you possibly pay for it with three audience members at a time?

I put that question to Lauren Rayner, the play’s executive producer.

"Yes, that has been the biggest question on my mind," she says with a chuckle, in a light-filled West Village apartment. 

Tickets have ranged from $25 to 50, and the performance is 45 minutes long.  There are three runs per night -- a total of nine audience members over three hours.

"We went the non-profit route," says Rayner. "We wrote grants, we approached individual donors."

Everyone had to volunteer a lot of unpaid hours. On the one hand, says Rayner, it reflects the depth of commitment of the actors.  On the other hand she questions "the culture of poverty that artists sometimes have, where they feel they need to struggle," and end up undervaluing their time. "They need to be compensated."

By working with several sponsors, including Three Legged Dog Art and Technology Center, Rayner was able to finance the play for a budget of $11,000 for a month.  That included gas and hours. 

She believes the idea could scale up profitably.

“I would have six cabs, six unique drivers/performers. If I had that many people per night, I could keep costs likely between $50 and 100 a ticket."

But it would require sponsors. 

"This isn’t like Broadway where you can make millions. This would require what I call a 'romantic investment.'"

By which she means philanthropy. Rayner and Collier considered raising prices.  With a wait list of 150 people, they could have. But pricier tickets would price out a lot of people, which Collier – who herself works a day job as an executive assistant - is loathe to do. 

"I want people to be able to see it," she says. "Theater, it may come as a surprise to you is not a huge money-making exercise, unless you’re working on Broadway."

So she, and the actors, do what so many artists do.  They do without.

"There has to be a deep and abiding love for the theater and for art and for what you do in order to keep doing it," she says. "Or it’s an act of insanity. That’s also possible."

*CORRECTION: The playwright's name, Alexandra Collier, was misspelled in the text.  It has been corrected.

PODCAST: Tennessee car workers reject union

Mon, 2014-02-17 08:03

The United Auto Workers had worked for years to get a foot in the door of Volkswagen's factory in Tennessee. But now workers at the plant turned down the proposal for some union representation by a vote of 712 to 626. There are questions about what's next for a union that is now only a quarter the size it was 35 years ago. The union says it's evaluating what it sees as outside interference in the vote and may challenge the result.

Meanwhile, There's news that despite aggressive efforts to pump money into the Japanese economy, the effort isn't going that well. The Japanese government today reported the economy there October to December grew at an annualized rate of just 1 percent, much lower than forecast.

And, snow's the word in much of the country. But so's the word drought. In Texas and the far West the rain has been sparse for almost two years. Marketplace's Adriene Hill looks at how we value the water we have.

Japan's stimulus efforts come up short

Mon, 2014-02-17 07:31

There's news that despite aggressive efforts to pump money into the Japanese economy, the effort isn't going that well. The Japanese government today reported the economy there October to December grew at an annualized rate of just 1 percent, much lower than forecast. BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes joined us from Tokyo to help digest the news.

Click play above to hear the interview.

Auto union regroups after defeat in Tennessee vote

Mon, 2014-02-17 06:51

The United Auto Workers had worked for years to get a foot in the door of Volkswagen's factory in Tennessee. But now workers at the plant turned down the proposal for some union representation by a vote of 712 to 626. There are questions about what's next for a union that is now only a quarter the size it was 35 years ago. The union says it's evaluating what it sees as outside interference in the vote and may challenge the result. Brent Snavely writes about the automotive industry for the Detroit Free Press and joined us to explain.

Click play above to hear the interview.

Tough times for cryptocurrencies

Mon, 2014-02-17 03:12

It has already been a rough year for virtual currencies like Bitcoin, and for some of the dark online markets that often use virtual currencies. In the wake of online illegal drug market Silk Road being shut down, a second version of Silk Road was hacked, and a similar online market called Utopia has also been shuttered by authorities. Dave Lee is a technology reporter for the BBC, and joined us to talk about it.

Click play above to hear more.

The economics of a bad winter

Mon, 2014-02-17 03:06

David Wood is one of the few upstate New York churchgoers still praying for snow.

"I told my wife, if the people in this church knew what we were praying for, they probably wouldn't let us in," he says.

But Wood loves the sound of snowplows, because falling snow means rising profits for him. He's president of Sears Ecological Applications, in Rome, N.Y., and this long and tough winter in the northeast has been good for him. He makes de-icing liquid spread by snowplows. He started back in 1997, with a liquid made from the leftovers of folks who made rum.

Wood bought a patent for the liquid from a Hungarian distillery. Those distillers dumped their waste in a stream and accidentally discovered that the rum remnants prevented freezing.

"These people standing there looking put together the idea that when you were discharging this material in very cold weather you didn't have freezing of the stream," he says

But spreading rum byproduct on roads? It was a hard sell at first. Wood made a strong case, though. He told cities and towns: my de-icer will stretch your road salt, make it stickier, an it'll work even in super-cold weather. Wood's company grew. He started licensing his patent, to people like Denver Preston of K-Tech Specialty Coatings, who's another big fan of winter.

"The thing that really is exciting for us – believe it or not – are the extremely cold temperatures," Preston says.

Preston expects sales to be up 100 percent this year. He makes his de-icing liquid from beet juice. Other entrepreneurs are trying to figure out how to make a buck from Jack Frost.

Jon Down, who teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Portland, had his students brainstorming the other day. One student suggested a snowman kit, or as Down describe is, "A multipurpose tote container that could double as making the balls that would be just perfect for a snowman."

Down says all the snow we're getting is an opportunity for the right entrepreneurs.

Stimulus past: Are we recovered and reinvested?

Mon, 2014-02-17 03:04

Five years ago today, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – better known as "the stimulus" – into law.

It was about $750 billion worth of spending that was supposed to kick start an economic recovery and, as its supporters said, "save or create" 3.5 million jobs.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus created somewhere between 500,000 and 3.3 million jobs.

"If you want a precise answer that no one can quibble with, you're not going to get that," says Jim Feyrer, an economics professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the stimulus.

He says he believes unemployment is lower than it would have been, but it is impossible to say how much lower, because there is not enough data. The world, Feyrer notes, is "too messy."

In 2009, "the economy was in much worse shape at that point than we thought it was at that point," says Gabriel Chodorow-Reich, a research associate at Harvard University who was an economist at the White House in 2009. And the economy continued to go downhill after the stimulus was passed.

Chodorow-Reich says many studies, including one he co-authored, have shown the stimulus had "a large impact on employment."

But Feyrer says the biggest challenge of assessing how well the legislation worked is that we "don't have what we call a counterfactual. We don't know what the world would have looked like in the absence of passing a stimulus package."

And that is something its critics continue to seize upon as President Obama asks congress to approve more money to improve infrastructure.

Affordable Care Act needs traction with minorities

Mon, 2014-02-17 03:04

More than 3 million people have enrolled in the Affordable Care Act, but there’s one population the initiative is struggling to reach: Latinos. In California fewer than 20 percent of Obamacare enrollees are Latino. Arizona and Texas have also had trouble getting Latinos to enroll.  

"It’s absolutely critical, because this is a numbers game," says Dan Mendelson, CEO of Avalere Health. Mendelson says Obamacare needs more people to sign up to keep costs down. For that to happen, he says, states need to offer informational materials specially targeted to Latinos.

"That will require a combination of communication and clarification of both the health care eligibility rules and our immigration rules," says Len Nichols, health economist with George Mason University.

Getting Latinos to sign up in greater numbers will require more outreach says Avalere’s Dan Mendelson.

"With diligence, culturally sensitive materials and a lot of work, this is a problem that can be solved."

Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S. Mendelson says for Obamacare to succeed, the administration will have to work to win over minority groups.


The future of ownership in social media

Mon, 2014-02-17 03:04

Fashion Week is done in New York. But Social Media Week is just starting today; it involves 2,500 events in 25 cities. It's sort of like a conference, with big sponsors like Google, Microsoft, and American Expres, and a lot of networking, panel discussions and performances. As events get underway we wanted to talk a little bit about the state of social media, with Harvard Law Proffesor Jonathan Zittrain. He says we've become accustomed to using social data generated by companies like Twitter.

Click play above to hear the whole interview.

Drought or not, how should we value water?

Mon, 2014-02-17 00:46

I shower (nearly) everyday. I take long, hot showers. I think about the day ahead, what I'm going to wear. Sometimes I hum.

I do not think about water.

"We wake up, we turn on the tap, and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cell phone service or television," says Robert Glennon, author of "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It," and a professor at the University of Arizona. "Unfortunately, when most of us think about water we think about it like the air: infinite and inexhaustible. When for all practical purposes, it's very finite and very exhaustible."

As we know from our economics classes, treating supply as if it's unlimited, when it's not, likely means one thing: we're not paying enough for it.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, says the way we allocate and value water here in California isn't rational.

A more sensible system would be more efficient. We'd hand out water differently. Price differently. And, Gleick says, we'd think differently about water.

"The value of water is more than just the amount of money we can get out of it to do something," he says.

The value of water extends beyond the value to farmers and businesses to our ecosystems and environment. That's a part of the picture Gleick says has been ignored for a long time.

"Because of that," he says, "our wetlands have disappeared, our fisheries our dying, our salmon are going extinct."

But, pushing back against current water policy isn't for the faint of heart.

"The reality is, if you want a short life as a public official, what you want to do is advocate raising the price of water," says Glennon.

Sometimes a drought can force the issue.

Is Bitcoin a bad investment?

Sat, 2014-02-15 11:18

So far, 2014 has not been a good year for Bitcoin. The crypto-currency's price has been extremely volatile, one of its most important exchanges has had major software issues, and just the other day $2.5 million worth of the virtual cash was hacked from a new online black market for drugs called Silk Road 2.0.

All of the bad news has had many people asking whether this is the end for the new form of online cash. Advocates say this is just growing pains, but critics say it reveals deeper problems.

Messaging apps: Skype has competition. Facebook too.

Fri, 2014-02-14 13:06

Today, a Japanese e-commerce giant called Rakuten bought a messaging app called Viber for $900 million. It's one of several apps for smartphones that provide free texting and even voice calls, including WhatsApp and Line.

In the U.S. it might not seem clear why any of them could be worth $900 million. But they're huge in countries like China, where one called WeChat dominates. 

Julie Ask, principal analyst at Forrester Research, explains why: They’re awesome.

"I would say to anyone who wants to understand what the craze is all about: Go download something like WeChat," she says. "Get four or five of your friends to do it, and play with it for a week. You’ll be totally hooked. The feature set is so much richer than messaging on a mobile phone. There’s so much more you can do with it."

Sending videos, pictures, cute little stickers—anything you can imagine, to anyone you want, most of it for free. It basically replaces your voice plan, your texting plan, and half of Facebook.

The apps have e-commerce sites, too. With apps built on top of WeChat, in China you can use it to order dinner. Or a taxi.

"These apps aren’t apps," Ask says. "They’re platforms."

It makes sense for a retailer like Rakuten to want in on that business, says Adib Ghubril, research director at the tech consulting firm Gartner.

"Retailers want to understand their customers better," he says, "and part of understanding them better is to get them talking."

In other words: What if Amazon knew you as well as Facebook does? 

Viber has 300 million users, so that’s a big head start. Altimeter Group founder Charlene Li thinks Rakuten just picked up a major asset.

"They instantly bought access to 300 million people," she says. 

That’s not as many as Facebook, but it’s growing fast. And Facebook couldn’t be purchased for $900 million. 

Under Armour's speed skating #SochiFail

Fri, 2014-02-14 12:37

Under Armour shares were off almost two and a half percent today after the Wall Street Journal reported that "people familiar with the U.S. Speedskating team were blaming Under Armour suits for American skater's poor performance."

Not what you might call an ideal product placement.

What happens at Netflix when House of Cards goes live

Fri, 2014-02-14 12:06

The new world of Internet TV is really geeky.

I spent some time in the Netflix War Room last night, as the company debuted the new season of its smash hit TV series, House of Cards. The war room is a conference room with big table in the middle. And as we approached midnight, a bunch of engineers were couched over their laptops.

Jeremy Edberg, Netflix’s Reliability Architect, was one of them.

"So when the clock hits 12, the first thing I’m going to be doing is looking at our dashboards to see if anybody is playing the show," Edberg said.

If nobody is playing House of Cards, that means there’s a problem. Unlike traditional TV, we use hundreds of different devices to go online. And last night, the engineers were there to make sure that House of Cards would play on every one of them.

"We’ve probably got sitting around the room an X-Box, a Play Station, Nintendo, Apple devices, Android devices and a couple of different TVs from our partner manufacturers," Edberg said.

The engineers can tell, in real time, how many people are streaming the show on these devices, where they are, and who’s binging. Edberg said the last time House of Cards launched, the engineers figured out that the entire season was about 13 hours.

"And we looked to [see]  if anybody was finishing in that amount of time," Edberg said. "And there was one person who finished with just three minutes longer than there is content. So basically, three total minutes of break in roughly 13 hours."

That’s right, of its 40 million subscribers around the world, Netflix was able the find the one super binger. Netflix spokesman Joris Evers said Netflix knows everything about your viewing habits.

"We monitor what you watch, how often you watch things," Evers said. "Does a movie have a happy ending, what’s the level of romance, what's the level of violence, is it a cerebral kind of movie or is it light and funny?"

Evers said Netflix uses this data when it decides on which original program to buy.

"House of Cards was obviously a big bet for Netflix," Joris said. "But it was a calculated bet because we knew Netflix members like political dramas, that they like serialized dramas. That they are fans of Kevin Spacey, that they like David Fincher."

Netflix’s move into original programming is all about taking viewers from other media companies, especially HBO, said Brad Adgate, an analyst at Horizon Media.

He says Netflix has more subscribers than HBO, but when it comes to making money, Netflix is David to HBO’s Goliath. But Adgate says, Netflix does have its slingshot.

"I think right now Netflix does have a competitive advantage over HBO because of the analytics," Adgate said.

Networks like HBO still rely, on large part, on Nielsen data. But the information Netflix gets is much more textured, granular... and valuable.

"And I think that’s where television and streaming video is headed - but I think right now streaming video is in the lead," Adgate said. That said, he added, it’s just a matter of time before HBO and other premium channels catch up.

President Obama calls California drought plan 'climate resilience'

Fri, 2014-02-14 12:06

President Obama met with farmers today in Fresno, California. He's promised to help them deal with the drought that plagues the region. Short of making it rain, though, there's not a whole lot the federal government can do to help farmers who don't have enough water.

What Obama is promising is money. Some is for disaster relief, but the big-ticket proposal is a $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund, which he has included in his 2015 budget.

So what is "climate resilience"?

When floods devastated much of Northern Colorado this past fall, several waste water treatment plants were closed. Just how quickly they were able to get back online is a perfect example of climate resilience. It's a community's ability to recover from a natural disaster.

"Drought in California, hurricanes on the eastern seaboard, wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region," all of these disasters, says Elizabeth Albright, an assistant professor of environmental policy at Duke, will intensify in the future. The president's proposed climate resilience fund would provide money to help regions bounce back quicker from these disasters.

The fund would also support research.

"One of the most important things we can do is try to get a better understanding of the magnitude of floods, hurricanes and droughts that we might face," says Glen MacDonald, director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

One of the keys to creating resilience is being able to accurately predict just how bad a disaster will be. For example, scientists are coming up with new ways to study aquifers -- natural underground reservoirs -- to better predict the severity of future droughts.

"We can actually measure the loss of ground water through satellites," says Dr. Juliet Christian Smith, with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Using satellites, scientists looked at the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest. They found that depletion of the aquifer is changing the gravitational pull of the earth, "because we are extracting ground water at such a great rate," says Christian-Smith.

In addition to research and disaster preparedness, the proposed $1 billion would also fund new technologies to build more climate resilient infrastructure.

Polish your pick up lines, it's International Flirting Week

Fri, 2014-02-14 11:45

Here’s an extended look at what’s coming up next week:

  • On Monday, we start the week off right with a holiday. Light some birthday candles for the nation’s first president, George Washington. Did you know he built and operated a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon? Inspiring. Well, you do have a three-day weekend ahead of you… What else are you going to do? U.S. markets are closed.
  • On Tuesday, we celebrate Pluto. It was discovered on February 18, 1930. Once thought to be the farthest planet from the sun, it’s been reclassified as a dwarf planet.
  • On Wednesday, we get data on newly-constructed homes from the Commerce Department. Also, the Labor Department releases the Producer Price Index. Both look at January.
  • President Washington signed legislation on February 20, 1792 creating the U.S. Post Office. And people started mailing love letters to each other all over the country.
  • On Friday the National Association of Realtors reports on sales of existing homes last month.
  • And finally, pile on the mascara. It’s International Flirting Week. A whole week to bat your eyes. 

Weekly Wrap: Settling beer bets

Fri, 2014-02-14 11:35

Congress passed a budget and reached a debt ceiling agreement, surprising host Kai Ryssdal. Who had at least one beer riding on the question.

In today's end-of-the-week conversation with Nela Richardson of Bloomberg Government and Cardiff Garcia of Financial Times, the three reflected on:

The debt-ceiling deal:

"Amazingly enough, the politically smart thing to do also happened to be the right thing to do...I always breathe a sigh of relief when this happens." -- Cardiff Garcia

Janet Yellen's first days:

"I thought stylisitcally, she was great. More confident than Bernanke was when he started his term." -- Cardiff Garcia

What's ahead for Yellen + more bets:

"I think she has a few surprises in store for us" -- Nela Richardson

"Wanna bet?" -- Kai Ryssdal

Seasonal adjustments:

"We've had winters for as long as I can remember." -- Nela Richardson

Pandora uses data on your musical taste to lure political advertisers

Fri, 2014-02-14 11:06

In the past, Pandora used two factors to infer how a listener would vote: the listener's zip code, and the voting habits of people in that zip code.

Now, according to Pandora spokesperson Heidi Browning, they will add data on listener music tastes. It may sound like shaky science, but researchers have seen a correlation between the types of artists a person listens to and how he or she votes. 

In 2012, Brian Whitman, the founder and CTO of The Echo Nest, a music intelligence platform, tracked what people listened to. Here are his findings.

Artists whose fans are most likely Republicans: 

  1. Kenny Chesney
  2. George Strait
  3. Reba McEntire
  4. Tim McGraw
  5. Jason Aldean
  6. Blake Shelton
  7. Shania Twain
  8. Kelly Clarkson 
  9. Pink Floyd 
  10. Elvis Presley

Artists whose fans are most likely Democrats:

  1. Rihanna
  2. Jay-Z
  3. Madonna
  4. Lady Gaga 
  5. Katy Perry 
  6. Snoop Dogg
  7. Chris Brown
  8. Usher
  9. Eminem
  10. Bob Marley

And then, there are artists that aren't really predictors. They attract both Republicans and Democrats. Six of the ten, says Whitman, are metal bands:

  1. The Beatles
  2. Marilyn Manson
  3. The Rolling Stones
  4. Johnny Cash
  5. Pantera
  6. Alice in Chains
  7. Paradise Lost
  8. Moonspell
  9. Fleetwood Mac
  10. Tiamat 

Research from The Echo Nest

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